Remembering Sally Merry: Heath Cabot

I first encountered Sally Engle Merry’s work my first year in graduate school.  Don Brenneis was my PhD advisor, and he gave me a copy of their coedited book Law and Empire in the Pacific: Fiji and Hawaii (2003). It was my first glimpse into how legal anthologists who also shared an interest in language approached questions of power and domination. These interventions—which emphasized nuance and multidirectionality in power relations—were so much more sensitive, and surprising, than the post-structuralist analyses so dominant at the time in which “subjects” were being “produced” left and right. I realized then that I should become a legal anthropologist if it meant I would be encouraged to do work like that; plus, if I was lucky, I might get to hang out with people like Sally.

I did not meet Sally in person until I had just finished my fieldwork in Greece and was attending my very first conference: Law and Society in Berlin (2007). I sheepishly introduced myself to her after a panel in honor of her work, and she was (as was her way) welcoming and kind—as if we knew each other already—making a point of introducing me to others as well. At a later conference, after I had graduated and was navigating the challenges of a first job, she invited me to join her for dinner. I was at that time teaching at a tiny college in Maine, on Mount Desert Island, and as beautiful as it was, I was feeling terribly isolated (I was the only anthropologist). But then it turned out that Sally herself had spent summers working as a waitress on the island.  She returned every summer to their house in Maine, not all that far away from where I was living. That conversation was also the first time someone made me appreciate the anthropological value of my own “WASPY” background. As she beautifully (and humorously) put it, New England WASPS are all about privilege one does not have to prove, but which nonetheless has its own careful set of signs – such as, for instance, the display of a bumper sticker (of a ski resort, or prestigious university) on a beat-up Volvo or Subaru. (Anyone who knows the type will immediately recognize this specific semiotic combination!). She made me feel less alone in my Waspiness – and on the island.

Later, Sally played a crucial role in advising myself and Will Garriott during our tenure as PoLAR editors. As an important figure in the AAA and in the American Ethnological Society, with her own deep investment in APLA and as a former editor of PoLAR, she helped us wade through budgetary information and other aspects of journal management and structure. She made sure we were always, so to speak, “at the table.”

The last time I saw her was at the APLA business meeting in DC when we passed the torch to the then new (now veteran) editors, Jessica Greenberg and Jessica Winegar. Will Garriott had had just led all of us in attendance with a champagne toast. It was a wonderful feeling of conviviality – of celebrating everyone who makes the subfield what it is (to me at least): a generous community of scholars (mostly, though not all, women), committed to mentorship, collegiality, and professionalism. All qualities that Sally embodied (and which, as I have learned over time, are in fact exceedingly rare in academia!).

Relaxing in the moment, I quickly downed two glasses of champagne, the second after clinking a glass with Sally who winked: “you can retire now.” I thanked her, but rather than staying to chat I excused myself: “I desperately have to pee,” I gulped, realizing immediately that I had just blurted this out to a person who first led me to hope that legal anthropology might be a good intellectual home. She laughed with her characteristic good cheer. Someone else in attendance interrupted and commented “that’s when you know you have relaxed a bit in academia–when you tell Sally Engle Merry you have to pee.” While I wish my last words to Sally had been a bit more dignified somehow they also seem appropriate for the transition that they had, indeed, marked. Now I am just so sad that no other developing scholar will get to make a well-received gaff to Sally Merry, see her rock a power suit like no other, and have access to this incredible aspirational model of gravitas, good humor, and elegance.


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